Do the Lakers know what they’re doing?
The Lakers’ offseason did not get off to the highly anticipated started that was expected by many. Paul George, who was all but ready to pack his bags and move to Tinsel Town decided to stay put in the comforts of Oklahoma. For the past 18 months, everybody was certain he would come back home to Southern California. He instead choose to sign a 4 year deal and continue his run with Russel Westbrook. On the bright, LeBron James moved to L.A. and is possibly the only superstar to join the storied franchise that did not need much convincing. It seems that regardless of the other variables at play, he was always going to wear the purple and gold.
Since the news broke that LeBron was to be a Laker, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka unconventional moves to leave them with a roster full of interesting young and old players. The Lakers’ front office has managed to hold onto their young core of Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, and Hart but have signed the likes of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Rajan Rando as free agents. They have each been signed to 1 year deals and in a vacuum, one can understand why Johnson and Pelinka would want to sign one of these veteran free agents. But, all three?? What the hell are the Lakers’ thinking?
If there was a stock for the Lakers – as a basketball team – I’d be low on them and actively trying to sell short. From a storyline and drama side of things, their stock could not be higher. It has been years since the best player in the league played in L.A. and seeing how the two generations within the Lakers’ locker-room will play together will be unpredictable, yet entertaining. That being said, buying their stock for the long run seems to be more logical. Rondo, McGee, and Stephenson are signed to 1 year contracts which enables the Lakers’ to maintain their cap flexibility next summer. Also, if they are able to trade or stretch Luol Deng’s contract next summer, the Lakers would have the cap space to sign another superstar player for a max contract to go alongside the King. If guys like Brandon Ingram and Kuzma further develop, they could become even more valuable trade assets or players capable of being on a championship roster. Overall, this would appear to be a win-win situation. Right?
LeBron loves losing, and loves locker-room drama, and loves a relatively inexperienced coach who may not be ready to handle the different egos on the roster. James is very understanding and patient as they pieces around him struggle to fit together. Are we sure this is going to work? Surprisingly, I think so. LeBron is ready to use this year to see what works best with the current roster. He signed with the Lakers knowing fully well that it was unlikely that he would content for the title for the coming season. It is possible that he intrigued by the idea that is will be the first season in over a decade where he is not expected to win a championship. If the Lakers end up as a 5-8 seed in the West and don’t go far in the playoffs, how much of that is going to be on him? Not much, and he could not be more welcoming of a season where the burden to win isn’t there. That being said, a counter to this argument is that he echoed similar sentiments when he returned back to The Land. He want to work with and groom the young players that the Cavs had and build a sustainable long-term environment for winning. Before you could blink, David Blatt is gone and Ty Lue is the head coach. The young players on the Cavaliers were gone and replaced with veterans.
There is something different about his move to the Lakers though. He trusts the ownership and the plan that Magic Johnson has. This would explain why he’s in no rush even though he’ll be turning 34 by this years’ end. He’s understands that to be a contender it will take another year. Even if the Lakers had signed Paul George or made a trade for Kawhi Leonard, the chances of beating the Warriors would be unlikely. He’s playing the long game and looking to maximize years 2, 3, and 4 of his contract.
For the past 15 seasons, LeBron has played in a relatively weak Eastern Conference. Now, he’s joining the dog fight out west. Every night is going to be a battle for him. There are plenty of good teams in the NBA’s stronger conference and they’ll all want to topple to now resurgent Lakers. They games should definitely be harder on him. Despite his indestructible status, father time is undefeated. The idea of LeBron employing a strict minute’s restriction protocol – similar to what Jerry Sloan implemented to lengthen the career of John Stockton – or taking a week or two off like he did in his first season back with the Cavaliers isn’t ludicrous. It will keep his body in shape and lengthen the already extraordinary prime spell of his career. Though, he won’t be terrified by the teams and players in the West just because he’s moved to a different state. He’s by far the best player in the world and amongst the greatest to ever grace the court. Everyone has been coming after him for years. That won’t change simply because he’s changed his address. A recharged and rejuvenated LeBron James alongside a healthy Kawhi Leonard would make the Lakers favorites in the 2019-20 season. That’s fucking scary.
He became a villain when he took his talents to South Beach. He became a hero when he came back home to fulfill a promise. He continues to a hero as he still has the best chance to topple the Golden State monopoly. Not only that, he’s attempting put the marquee franchise of the NBA in the spotlight. He’s a hero in everyone’s eyes.
Which team in the East benefits most from LeBron signing with the Lakers?
(Disclaimer: This was written before Kawhi was traded to the Toronto Raptors)
Easy answer. EVERYONE! Every damn team in the east. On a serious note though, it’s got to be the Boston Celtics. They’ve made the conference finals the past two seasons and LeBron stood in their way on both occasions. The first go around featured a gentlemen’s sweep were Cleveland gave them a game. This past post season featured a different story. A lackluster (at best) Cavaliers facing an up-and-coming Celtics teams without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. This young team pushed Cleveland to a game 7 at home and could have reached the finals had a few extra possessions gone their way. With Kyrie and Hayward both looking to make strong comebacks and with a playoff run added to the belts to the likes of Taytum and Brown; the Celtics will be the team to beat in the East.
Another candidate is the 76ers, who were in contention to make it to the conference finals last season having grabbed the 3rd seed on a 50 win season. A once cherished rivalry is back with two franchises likely to play each other to come out as the eastern conference champions for years to come. Embiid and Simmons played their first full season together and were sight for sore eyes for the Process faithful. Resigning shooters like J.J. Redick was key to crucial for the 76ers. They have a strong core with depth and experience on their bench. Philly has been linked with Kawhi Leonard and would likely have to give up much of their stockpile of assets to acquire his services. Though without him in a LeBron-less eastern conference, Philadelphia have a good a chance as any team to make a run to the finals.
I could not think of a happier team than the Raptor’s after hearing the departure of LeBron from Cleveland. They’ve played some of the best basketball over the past few seasons and even managed to finish as the top seed in the East on a franchise record 58 win season. Toronto’s gotten swept by the Cavaliers twice and have bowed down to them in the playoffs for three straight years. People have gone as far as to change to name of the city to LeBronto. At the end of every season, word starts to come out from the Real North that everyone one of their players is on the table. Now, with firing of head coach Dwayne Casey, the Raptors seek to take control over the power vacuum left by LeBron’s departure. They’re a talented side with young players like OG Anunoby and Fred Van Vleet becoming integral part of this franchise. At the end of the day, it comes to down Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry. A talent pair, they are not better than the two best players on both Boston and Philadelphia. They may even be the fourth or fifth best team in the Eastern conference behind Indiana and Milwaukee. They certainly benefit off of LeBron’s exit to the Western Conference as does every other team in the East. The Raptors struggle to get better as no marquee free agents are likely to sign with them and they are grouped with the likes of Wizards and Pistons with having untradeable max contracts. Blowing it up simply is not an option as no team in the NBA wants to take on the contracts of Derozan or Lowry. Both are all star players but are simply not the kind of players who fit best in the modern NBA.
The Pacers are a dark house candidate to come out of the East. Victor Oladipo had a breakout season with the Pacers and is looking to improve on his All-NBA Third Team status. Miles Turner has been putting in the work during the offseason and has transformed his body in preparation for the upcoming season. He’s got the requisite skillset of a modern day big. He can switch onto the perimeter, shoot 3’s, and has the ability to play make. Sabonis is a solid role-player capable of scoring and rebounding of the bench. The signing of Tyreke Evans lightens the scoring burden on Oladipo. They may not beat Boston or Philadelphia but they sure as hell will give everyone in the East a run for their money. They’re a player or two away from truly contending in the East.
The Bucks are a sleeper in the East. We are yet to see the best of Giannis and the fact that he is still to add a reliable jump shot is scary for a guy who can already average 30 and 10 and nightly basis. He’s a coldblooded killer. There probably is not a single player in the East capable of guarding him. The combination of Giannis and an ever improving Khris Middleton should give opposition teams nightmares. The question with Milwaukee is what else do they have? With Jabari Parker gone and with Thon Maker only being relevant for three games in the playoffs, there isn’t much surrounding Giannis and Middleton. They were an average team last year and made the playoffs as the 7th seed. On the Brightside, Giannis will only get better and in a LeBron less, it would be a safe bet to say that he’s a top 3 MVP candidate for next season.
Did the Thunder get better this offseason?
I’ve been skeptical of the Thunder project since the departure of James Harden. Sam Presti drafted three future MVPs and now he could be left with worst possible one of the lot. Russel Westbrook. With Paul George resigned long-term and in imminent Carmelo Anthony departure, does this team get better and how much of an effect does continuity have on the Thunder?
They may be better off without Carmelo Anthony. Originally, the trade for Paul George created a dynamic duo between him and Westbrook. I’ve had my doubts in regards to George’s ability to be the number one option on a championship team after his devastating leg injury. Joining Westbrook still allows for him to maintain his star status without having the burdens of being the alpha dog on the team. The Thunder are doing a great job by moving on from the disastrous Carmelo Anthony experiment. The playstyles of Westbrook and George mesh well together without Melo in the mix. There is one major problem with the plan. Everything is still built around Russel Westbrook. History tells us that a team cannot win a title with Westbrook though every other move they’ve made is still excellent. They appear to have a tenacious defense anchored by Steven Adams and a returning Andre Roberson – both of whom are locked up for the long run. Fingers crossed, the signing of Nerlens Noel who is playing for his NBA career will follow instructions and provide frontcourt depth. The mystery is taken away that shrouded this team for the past season. With storyline of George to the Lakers gone from everyone’s minds, only time if these pairing can be successful together. He’s almost as good as Harden and Durant. And given that he doesn’t need the ball to be effective, he’s a much better fit with Westbrook.
The Warriors and Rockets are by far the best offensive teams in the teams both continue to have underrated defensive attributes. The Thunder on the other hand are a defense first team and with a healthy Roberson last season they were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. This for a small sample size only though this projects well into their future. That being said, defense doesn’t lead to championship success in the modern NBA. The league has changed from days of the 04’ Pistons winning the league with a historic defense. Now, with the way the Warriors have changed the way basketball is played and with how the Rockets nearly made the finals last year; it is ridiculously unlikely that a defense orientated team is going to reign in the NBA for the next for few years. The biggest problems of this roster was displayed in their Game 6 loss to the Jazz. George shot 2-16 from the field with Westbrook attempting 43 shots. This a nightmare scenario that Billy Donovan and Sam Presti desperately want to avoid. No matter how tough this defense is, the Thunder simply do not have the solution when they need a big shot in a pressure scenario.
The departure of Carmelo does give them a silver lining. Almost all championship teams have been amongst the best defensive teams in that season and being among the league leaders in defensive rating. They will likely be a top 5 defensive team next season without Melo though with the eye test will show that they can seem like a mess on the defensive end. They also lack a 3 point specialist who can come off screens or run pick and pop actions.
Another question surrounding OKC is how good of a coach is Billy Donovan? How much room does he have with Russ and George signed for the next few years? Donovan had a lot of success in Florida running a dynamic offense in his college team and was expected to translate his style of play to the pro level. The Thunder do not seem to have an offensive system and this is not entirely on Donovan. He’s got a point guard who can only play at 100 mph and there’s no way to know effective this can be on a night to night basis. Coaching is such an important facet of the game it’s hard to say where Donovan falls in the pecking order of coaches in the league. Ultimately the Thunder serve as the Rorschach test in terms of style of basketball. Either you see team lead by a dynamic player who’s an icon in the league or a player that can be extremely frustrating to watch given he is a chaotic ball of energy that does not allow a system to fall in place.
What’s the new storyline for Westbrook? He’s gone from Durant’s sidekick, to being the player that held Durant back and made him leave, to a one man wrecking ball, to now a player who could get the best out of a super team that his front office assembled for him. He’s one of the most exciting players to watch given he plays at an extraordinary pace with no care for his body. He only has one gear and one tempo and this is unlikely to translate deep into the career as he approaches 30. Inevitably, guy like Westbrook simply don’t age well even though he is easily the pound-for-pound toughest player in the league. He’s a miniature freight train though I’m not sure whether is body will be able to keep up with his spirit. Westbrook will eventually hit a point where his body and athleticism begin to fail him. Either this will result in him changing the way he plays and he becomes a much easier player to play with or his career will reach a cliff and fall.
The future of this team seems both stable and turbulent. The Thunder have a solid core that is under contract for at least the next three years but lack the cap space of add complimentary pieces around them. They probably are going to be franchise that can challenge for the 3 seed in the Western Conference and make a run to the conference finals if the chips fall in their way; though championship aspirations need to be put on hold. And maybe this is fine for Thunder. Some franchises and fan bases may be fine by making the playoffs and getting bounced in the first or second round. Tearing this core apart and starting over is easier said than done. Maybe by not improving or falling apart, the Thunder can actually come out as winners in their own way.